Monday, December 31, 2007

Resolution redux

It's that post-holiday time of year, when every third commercial is about dieting, gym memberships, or unbelievably buff people touting exercise machines that cost more than my first car. After a few days of these spots, I start thinking about resolutions for the new year. Maybe fitness would be a good place to start, I ponder. Something besides tummy crunches. I make a few pseudo-kung-fu moves.

"Hee-ah!" I try out a kick in front of the television. It feels impressive. I try a couple more, a little bit louder. "Hwah! Hoo-hah! Hee-ah!"

Suddenly I hear my husband's voice from the next room. "I'm hearing weird sounds," he says. "Did the cat just throw up?"

Okay, maybe fitness isn't my strongest suit. I could work more, but I already spend enough time at the desk to have a pitiful lack of hobbies. The last fiction I read was a brochure at the doctor's office touting the joys of broccoli. And while I do watch TV, I don't think George Lopez can count as a viable pastime.

Maybe it's a good year to get organized. First, I'll need a pencil, some paper, and a new calendar. I begin searching through old Barnes & Noble bags for the calendar. No luck. My husband suggests I look in the filing cabinet. Ha! That man and his crazy notions. However, sometimes he does have an occasional helpful thought. I open the filing cabinet gingerly, just in case a giant spider has taken up residence in there since the last time I filed papers. Instead, I find lots of other cool stuff, like a box of dried-up ink pens from 2002, a box of stuck-together envelopes, and three pristine calendars, still in the shrink-wrap. Eureka! I take a closer look at the date. Two of the calendars are for 2001, and the other is for 1999. Undeterred, I open the box of pens, take one, and do the zero scribble on an envelope for about three minutes. I'm encouraged by bits of blue appearing in the grooved circles, so I consider my calendar options, then go with the 1999 Scooby-Doo calendar, a classic. I begin scribbling in potential goals on each month, like "Write best-seller" and "Find good tuna recipe."

Just then, my own personal Scrooge peeks over my shoulder. "You know, that calendar is sadly out of date."

"Don't stomp on my dreams," I reply, writing in a note to lose hubby's socks in March.

He shakes his head and leaves, mumbling something about institution and commitment. It gives me such a warm glow when he talks about our marriage, so I carve in (the pen has quit working by this time) a reminder to lose only half of his socks; this gives him a warm foot to stand on. My goals now set, I wander back to the living room, wait for the Ab Killer commercial to end, then relax with a well-deserved glass of wine. I think it's wine, anyway. I do vaguely remember buying some grape juice last July. I sip delicately from my plastic Shrek glass, comforted by the fact that the new year is all planned out, and I've got everything under control. I ignore the giant crash from the kitchen, followed by a plaintive 'Meow?' Yep, everything's under control. Best of all, George Lopez is coming up next.

Have a wonderful New Year's Eve, everyone!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Soul food, soul day

Yesterday was one of those serene, wonderful days that come all too rarely in life. I didn't have to go into town, so the morning went delightfully slow with hours to myself. I wrote, then I sat down and read a wonderful newspaper piece by DeNeen L. Brown on soul food. The first-person essay was beautifully written, from the detailed, relaxed preparation of dinner to a vivid trip into the kitchens of her youth. While the essay was primarily syndicated because of Kwanzaa, I realized that the African-American aspect of soul food is but one reflection of Southern cuisine traditions born of necessity. Many of the dishes she mentioned I remember from my own childhood; in fact, a pot of pinto beans bubbled while I read the paper.

I, too, follow the habits of my mother when cooking, and those comforting, cheap dishes are the only ones that I can prepare easily and with skill. I 'look' the beans before washing them, just like she does, then wait to bake the cornbread until just before the beans are finished. Fresh, hot cornbread is yellow, crusty, and definitely not sweet, according to family tradition. As soon as it comes out of the oven, a thin slice along the crust must be cut and swirled with butter, then eaten by the cook. After that, it can set out to cool.

I remember Mom walking up the path, picking greens for poke salad. She loved it. I hated it, because I saw it as the Southern equivalent of the Japanese blowfish; it could be your last meal, unless it was prepared exactly right. I also remember hog jowls and black-eyed peas for New Year's Day, crackers made from leftover pie crust dough, fried chicken made crispy in Mom's favorite cast iron skillet, and the delicious taste of fried green tomatoes and squash, golden brown on each side. My favorite meal on earth is pinto beans, hot cornbread, fried potatoes, and fresh green onions and tomatoes just fifteen minutes out of the garden. Extra bonus: fresh, chilled cucumber slices. Mmmm. One taste of homegrown cukes, and you'll never touch those waxy, green torpedoes from the supermarket again.

On a truly soulful and peaceful day, I thank Ms. Brown for bringing all those excellent memories of my mother's kitchen back to my mind.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

And what did you get for Christmas?

Wormy got a motorcycle under the tree this year. Had to make him a little do-rag to keep his antenna from tangling, of course. He's actually posing in a parking space on one of Eureka Springs' curvy streets, ready to rumble over to the library. Worms gone wild!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Holiday trick and treats

Mmmmmmm, holiday treats. So far this year, we've received delicious banana nut bread, yummy peanut clusters, and rich fudge. And my present to all these talented culinary gift-givers? I'm not cooking for them. It's the kindest thing I can (not) do, really. I'm just not cut out for Betty Crocker. If you pass by the house we used to live in, you'll likely see small round patches in the back yard where nothing grows; this is where I threw out a bad batch of peanut butter cookies about fifteen years ago.

Candy thermometers? I believe that's what doctors use to take the temperature of sick gingerbread men. If I made chocolate peanut clusters, the Army would be at my door with a blank defense contract, asking for more of those 'anti-personnel devices.' 'We couldn't believe it,' a general would tell me. 'Terrorists laughed at our bombs, but turned and ran when we threw these candies at them.'

One optimistic friend gave me a lovely jar filled with pre-mixed fixins' for chocolate-butterscotch drop cookies. Yeah, they're drop cookies, all right; I've already dropped the jar once. The air filled with a lovely, chocolate-sweet scent, and I realized the jar would be more beneficial as a room freshener. I may get drunk on New Year's Eve and decide to try making the cookies, who knows? Wine makes me do crazy things on New Year's Eve; that's how I ended up on, checking out how far the homecoming queen has fallen, and where the ex-boyfriends ended up. But for now, I'll just open the jar and wave the smell around, then tear into a bag of Archway's cookies, arrange them on a plate, and call it a day.

Monday, December 17, 2007

All work and no blog

I really wish I was one of those people who could blog every day. In a way, I do. I write blog posts in my head while I'm driving or cleaning house or chasing the puppies to put them in their pen for the night. Problem is, I also have a bad memory, and those posts just disappear into the ether when my brain is distracted by an incoming dog disaster, a business phone call, or something shiny dangling from a tree branch. (Darn those wind chimes!)

The work always comes first, and I've been very blessed this year. The blessings continue this month, as I race to get interviews before everyone goes 'Poof!' on Christmas Eve. My mind is blotchy with welts from multiple rounds of phone tag, I often wander out into public with my headset on, dragging the phone somewhere behind me like a cat toy, and I have yet to find gloves that keep my hands warm while I type and still allow less than 27 mistakes per line.

But, honestly, it's a good life. I'm doing what I always imagined: I'm a professional writer. Checks come on a nearly frequent basis in my name. I get those wonderful 'professional discount' coupons in the mail for magazine subscriptions. (Yes, they get me every time. Who can resist two years of helpful, womanly hints for $10?)

So, if I suddenly pop into your mind for no apparent reason, just know that you've probably been mentioned in an imaginary blog post, written on passing clouds like all creative thoughts, able to be read only by meditating monks and the Dalai Lama. Hey, he's laughing with you, not at you. And he loved the cats playing paintball calendar idea I had for Dawn but never posted.

I'd also like to correct a link for a friend of mine. JR recently began a new blog after I tagged him with the latest meme making the rounds. He's a newbie writer, very creative, and he's working on a book about local history. He's also finished NaNoWriMo a few times, and has a lot of talent. Now, if he would just submit something...somewhere. Anywhere. (Hint. I'm talking to you, JR.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

In orbit

Some days you feel like good ol' Mother Earth, solid, grounded, and intuitive. Other days, you're Skylab, tired, broken, hurtling toward the dirt and making people on several continents duck, then wait for the boom. This has been a Skylab week, where my worries have become space junk circling around me, before we all go plunging to the ground, making a dent in some foreign country. Yesterday I hit a major writer's roadblock; the words simply would not come, even when I squeezed my head like a tube of toothpaste. Fast forward to last night's stress meltdown, and today's achy nerve hangover. Luckily, there's one bit of shiny brightness; I've been tagged by Wordsmith, and must concentrate on something other than the entire state of Ohio, and how best to describe it.

So, without further ado, here are the rules:

Link to the tagger and post these rules on your blog. Share five facts about yourself on your blog, some random, some weird. Tag five people at the end of your post by leaving their names as well as links to their blogs. Let them know they are tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

1. Random fact: I am left-handed, although no one has ever called me 'Lefty.' My left-handedness is a direct gift of individuality from my father, who passed away when I was eight. My first-grade teacher wanted to force me to become right-handed, and he said absolutely not. His grade-school teacher forced him to become a 'righty' by tying his left hand behind his back when he was a kid, and that experience made him stand up for me and my unique quirks. Thanks, Daddy.

2. Weird fact: I eat with chopsticks or plastic forks, because I really, really, really hate the sound of metal utensils scraping teeth. I do eat with regular forks, spoons and knives when we eat out, but I'm very careful.

3. Factoid: I have no children, but many pets, including cats, dogs, and one spider. I haven't dressed any of them in cute or humorous clothing.

4. Fact-a-chicka-boom-boom: I've always wanted to be a writer, except for a brief period in my teen years when I wanted to be a sex therapist. Actually, I wanted to write books like Dr. Joyce Brothers, so I guess my budding hormones just kicked the writer thing up a notch.

5. Factling: I used to attend UFO conferences, and collect story ideas. Really, this is one of the best ways to hit a sci-fi jackpot; just sit in the lobby and listen. Wait until you get to the car to take notes, though. It makes the attendees paranoid to see a lone person scribbling away in the corner.

Hmmm, who's left to tag? I tag Nita at Nita's Notes; Greg at A Cranky Engineer; Jen at Creatif; J.R. at Walksquiet (maybe he'll update his blog now!) and Jenn at Working Writer (since completing this helped me forget my worries for a while, hoping it'll distract her, too.)

I did it! Bwah-hah-hah-ha!

Friday, December 7, 2007

Gimme more, more more! Four fave free tools for writers

Writers and free stuff: it's a natural relationship. For a writer, feast or famine isn't just a saying, it's a life cycle. Whether you're going through the lean times or just remember them vividly, these free online tools will help as you toil in the word mines, hammering together those manuscripts.

1. iGoogle. How did I live without this for so long? This handy tool allows you to create your own pimped-out homepage from hundreds of widgets, including a preview of your Gmail. Writers will appreciate many of the add-ons, including Literary Quotes of the Day, Shakespearean insults, a search box, or the excellent and handy Writer's Unblock prompts. Also add any flavor of news, from Fox to NPR, weather, horoscopes, moon phases, and nearly anything else you can imagine. I tried out the Office Paintball game widget, which was great fun but a bit noisy, but the Magic Trick of the Day shows promise. Tired of searching page after page on Craigslist for writing jobs? Add the Craigslist search widget, tweak the settings for your needs, and gather job leads whenever you have a spare moment between queries. Having all the widgets on one page saved time for me, because now I don't surf over to three or four sites in my usual procrastination routine, and I actually start working a little earlier in the day.

2. Project Gutenberg. All the fun of a book sale, without having to cart heavy boxes home. Sure, you're familiar with all your favorites here: Poe, Twain, Austen, Dickens, Joyce, Kafka, and the rest of the gang. But have you ever searched for writing texts? I was thrilled to find an early book on freelance writing, originally published in 1920, complete with example essays ripped from the current publications of the time. It was a fascinating read, and so much of the advice remains the same. Do a bit of digging, and you'll find books on short story writing, screenwriting, American literature, Italian poetry, and many other treats, all free for the downloading. An extra bonus for the holiday season: the site has an online advent calendar, with a different children's book under each day that you and the munchkin can read together.

3. NaNoWriMo. Yes, November is over, and most people consider this an event. But I truly consider it a great writing tool; each year, I'm amazed that I've finished this truly crappy novel by December 1. Writing a crappy novel in a month teaches you all sorts of things about writing, including how to just get the words out on a page, and how to wrangle characters so they do what you want. Starting this year, sign-ups for NaNoWriMo will be available all year long, so you can sign up, hop on the message boards, and get involved with writing and editing, or jump straight into procrastinating for 2008. Each regional lounge is also open so you can communicate with other writers in your area. The NaNofather, Chris Baty, has a knack for inspiration, so when you're dragging a bit, check out his pep talks, or peruse this year's pep talks from Neil Gaiman, Sue Grafton, Garth Nix, and other notable authors.

4. Rainlendar (and other software). This program is a writer's dream. It will display several months in advance on your desktop, a great thing when your body is in December, but your mind is in March or April planning queries. The free version also has to-do lists and alerts, and you can customize it with skins. Bump up to the paid version if you want Rainlendar to network with Outlook or Google Calendar. Other freebie must-haves that get a brief mention: OpenOffice, a free and very handy office suite, and FoxIt PDF Reader, which takes up a lot less room and works faster than Adobe Reader.

For a bonus freebie, I'll mention another calendar I can't do without: the annual Free Writer's Planner from Julie Hood and Organized Writer. Even though I never make it through step one of her five-step daily checklist, I still love her newsletter, and print out the planner every year in a burst of New Year's-resolution-I can-do-it frenzy. I try to carry it in the car with me at all times, so when I'm stuck waiting on the hubby I can whip out my planner and make a few notes. Thanks to Julie, and when the wind is just right, I almost feel....organized. Then the universe notices my self-satisfied feeling and drops a dab of chaos right on my head.

Even if you've seen some of these free tools before, take a second look and get the most out of them. After all, you can't beat the price.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Santa's blast from the past

In the interest of catching up on all my work this week, I'll be posting one or two of my newspaper columns from my former employer, the Carroll County News. This is a Christmas column from December, 2001. I've edited out the website URLs that no longer exist; luckily, the coolest one is still around, and you can still chat with Bif the Elf. I'm very fond of Bif, because this column won an honorable mention from the Arkansas Press Association. This blast from the past comes to you with permission from my former managing editor, Jerry Dupy. Thanks, Jerry!

The Lighter Side of the Net

After last week’s column, I had a couple of requests for sites that let kids e-mail Santa. Since I listen to my public (all two of you), I did a bit more digging on the web and found that yes, Marsha, there IS a Santa Claus and he’s at This is a cool site with lots of activities. I especially enjoyed the Christmas Karaoke feature. After a rousing rendition of ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ left the cats hiding under the couch, I tried out the ‘letter to Santa’ option. It’s fairly straightforward, and doesn’t ask for too much information. You don’t need an email address to send a letter to Santa, just make up a password, and you can come back later, log in, and read Santa’s reply.

Games, recipes, music and stories make this a great site for kids of all ages. The only thing I didn’t like about this site is that it requires Macromedia Flash, but it gives you a link to download the plug-in, and then loads quickly. The one feature that intrigued me, though, was the Elfchat, an automated Javascript program that gives you a chance to chat with one of Santa’s workers from the North Pole. Being the intrepid journalist, I decided to interview Bif the elf on current events of the day. And in true Dave Barry fashion, I am not making this up.

Q: Hello, Bif. How long have you been an elf?

A: The other elves are busy making toys, but I work in the mailroom.

Q: So are you worried about anthrax? Do you wear gloves?

A: I’d rather talk about you.

Q: Let’s not get fresh, Bif.

A: We’ll see.

Q: You sound like a dirty old elf looking for cyber love. Don’t the other elves like you?

A: Not quite.

Q: Do you get bored at the North Pole?

A: Let’s go outside and play.

Q: Back off, Bif. You’re getting fresh again.

A: Does it please you that I’m getting fresh again?

Q: Bif, I’m happily married. We could never have a life together.

A: Perhaps.

Obviously, not many people have been chatting with Bif, so drop in and talk to him. He needs company.

There are a couple of other sites that offer ‘letter to Santa’ services, like (website vamoosed). With this one, you have the option of receiving an email or an instant note on the screen. It’s cute, without tons of advertising swamping you like many holiday sites. Another Santa letter site is (website gone). Like all the Santa letter sites, you fill out a form for the basics and then write a note to Santa. In a few minutes, you get an answer back from Mrs. Claus telling you how busy Santa is, and how happy she is to hear from you. Yeah, yeah, Santa’s probably just stretched out on the couch asleep, listening to football and drooling on the sofa cushions.

Finally, I checked out I was put off by how much information this site requires. This was the only site that wanted my home address, but I didn’t see a snail mail feature for receiving a letter from Santa. It also zapped me with an error when I didn’t select three different name-brand toys on my wish list (nothing like teaching branding and consumerism at a young age.) I did receive a very thoughtful, well-written letter from Santa in my email box, though. It emphasized charity and gratitude, which was nice, but was a head-spinning contrast from the toy-heavy letter it urged me to send. I suspect these elves are corporate marketing execs in pointy shoes and Santa took a few public relations and communications classes. (Note: I was right; now the site has a disclaimer saying the kids' letters may be used for marketing purposes.)

All in all, Santa seems to be a pretty wired guy, so send him an email this year. The reindeer are probably checking his inbox as we speak, which is no small feat for someone with hooves. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m expecting an email of my own from Bif.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Remembering the goosebumps

Does anyone else still get excited about book fairs? Not those big, tempting grown-up events that I've never had the luck to attend (and if I did, you'd never hear from me again) but those Scholastic book fairs we had when we were kids. I was reminded of that during a blog visit to Ally at Writing on the Wall: A Bit of Inspiration,
and remembered how much I loved those book fairs, but, being poor, it was like going to a fancy restaurant: I wanted to wolf it all down, but my budget only allowed for breadsticks.

Now, as an adult, I have more money, but I feel a little weird about strolling into a book fair and slapping some hard-earned currency down for an armload of posters, books and other brightly colored items, especially since I don't have any children of my own to use as cover. I guess I could employ a frontboy ('Hey, kid, here's a twenty, bring me back all the Scooby Doo they've got') but in today's security-conscious world, even that seems risky. ('Hey, why are all those kids running toward that middle-aged woman in the parking lot with a stack of Choose Your Own Adventure books? Seize her!')

When I covered book fairs for the local paper's school beat, things became a little easier, but by the time I got there, camera in hand, the little brats had scooped up all the good stuff, and there wasn't a Scooby Doo poster to be had. Sure, years of collecting toys and books made the purchases go easier ('Why, yes, of course, all this is for my...nephew), it still felt a bit odd, even for me.

I still get those wonderful, book-inspired goosebumps when I see a book fair sign. But these days, I don't stop. I keep going, like a mature adult, and head home.

Thank God for eBay.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Procrastination, Part Duh

Just days after I wrote about my lifelong habit of putting things off, I made a pilgrimage to Barnes and Noble to offer up my debit card on their altar of books. I have several weaknesses, but two of the strongest are tote bags and calendars, so it seemed like kismet when I stumbled across Do It Later!-A 2008 Planner (or Non-Planner) for the Creative Procrastinator by Mark Asher. It's a great little desk planner that comes complete with designated doodle space on nearly every page, tidbits of comforting procrastinator wisdom ("Research shows that there's a 50 percent chance an undesirable task will disappear if left undone for thirty days") and activities ("Write a lengthy, thoughtful journal entry about your troubles in getting motivated to work.") Egad, this man can see into my soul!

My favorite pages, though, are the lists, both fill-in-the-blank and helpful hints, like Ten Things to Say to Annoy an Uptight Perfectionist, or my personal favorite, How to Make Killer Art out of Office Supplies. In fact, I'm already clearing out my drawer organizer in preparation for that Zen Garden. Basically, it's a fun calendar with lots of reasons to write in it other than to mark how many days it's been since I've sent in a query or an invoice.

The only quibble is when the calendar starts; the first page jumps right in there on Dec. 31, 2007. If it were really for procrastinators, it would start around March 2, 2008. I don't think I've ever written in a calendar before March, so this will be a new, exciting experience.

Now, if he'd only come out with a matching tote bag.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Turkey and typing

No offense to my folks, but the one of the best Thanksgivings I've ever had was just me and my husband. At the time (we were both much younger) he worked at a retail shop in downtown, and volunteered to keep it open for his boss, and get a little extra pay. I went with that day, and we enjoyed the quiet of the morning; very few people were on the street. We ordered Chinese food, had a wonderful lunch, and then the post-Thanksgiving dinner crowds emerged. They bought tons of stuff, since we were the only shop open for blocks. At the end of the day, the cash register was full, the shop was nearly empty, and we were together, full of egg drop soup and tofu stir-fry. It was a Thanksgiving done our way, at our pace, and we loved it.

We both have a habit of working holidays. This habit started involuntarily, as we held multiple jobs in tourism and customer service. Now, we both set our own hours; his job as an IT guru for a local string of businesses, and and mine as freelancer usually fit well into our schedule. But we often work on Easter or Thanksgiving or Christmas, just because we can, because we enjoy the quiet. So after the required family dinner with my family, we'll head back home and likely work on a few projects, then spend the evening together. Hey, it works for us.

Monday, November 12, 2007


I saw a shirt on that summed it up pretty well: 'Procrastination is crack for writers.' It's spot on, because putting work off is something we can't help, and can't stop without a 12-step program. I may be the worst offender of all time, because I have a list of ideas and writing to-dos that literally stretches back weeks, months and years.

For example: I've been meaning to mention Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents blog for a long time. He's the editor of the annual print edition, and has the latest on new agents, closing agencies, who's reading what, and where new writers should send their work. Chuck keeps the blog updated, and should be an essential resource for every fiction writer. He's also a nice guy and a great speaker, so if he comes to a conference near you, definitely drop by to hear his session.

There. One thing off the list. Now, I just have to fill out the list some more to avoid working on my next article. Then, I'll work on the article to avoid blogging. After that, I'll blog to avoid my to-do list. See, it all works out in the end.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Information Junkie: Hit me, baby

I laugh at writers who declare, 'Oh, I never watch television,' especially when they act like they're so above the medium. When I responded to one that yes, indeed, I watch television every single day and I love it, she said, 'Oh, you're such an information hound.'

Dogged in my pursuit of facts, trivia, and cool things to know? Absolutely. I'm an information junkie. I listen to BBC World News, watch CNN, read papers online, and soak up pop culture. You simply can't be a writer and stick your head in a hole, determined to write your opus without that annoying outside world nibbling at your brain.

Stuff happens, really cool stuff, funny stuff, sad stuff, life stuff: hundreds of thousands of tiny ideas marching past, just waiting to be grabbed. The media feeds off itself, so if you see two articles on the same subject in the newspapers, you'll likely see a televised news piece on it within a couple of weeks. Then it becomes a trend, and more articles are written. I swear, CNN staffers must have Digg in their bookmarks, because those stories pop up on TV regularly.

Admittedly, I don't watch everything. Never seen 'Survivor,' 'American Idol,' or 'Dancing with the Stars.' But I usually know what's happening on those shows, because CNN reports it. I do love my sitcoms, plus my sci-fi, and all the lowdown on History/Discovery/A&E/Science/E! (oops, how did that last one get in there?) But it's all about being connected.

Give me my 'Daily Show,' 'Colbert Report,' my late-night menu of Jay Leno and Craig Ferguson, plus some Nick at Nite thrown in for good measure. Fork over 'Mythbusters,' 'Dirty Jobs,' 'Heroes,' 'Chuck,' 'Eureka,' and isn't it time for 'Deadliest Catch' again? I know which trendy actress has a CDL, who has a man-sized safe in his office, and what the Britney-joke-of-the-day is. Because it's fun, and it's part of the culture in this moment. It also gets me work, because I can see trends starting up.

That said, the lack of fresh television is in the news, and I support the striking writers completely: I'll watch the reruns, speed up the Netflix rotation, and root for those guys to get their deal, because part of their complaint is the lack of respect for what they do. That's a complaint all writers have, from the local reporter to the Hollywood script writer. The other complaint is one we should all understand: getting paid what we're worth. So while the guild writers do what they have to, I'll be chilling out, waiting with giggly glee, and wagging my big hound tail to see their work back on the screen.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A labyrinth of ruts

Yesterday, I made my usual round of phone calls to various CVBs as part of my article work. I didn't want to get into anything in-depth so I could be prepared to do an interview on the spot if needed (which often happens). I stayed online, and soon I noticed a pattern: check AW boards, check NaNoWriMo forums, check sites, check blogs, check new stories on Digg, read TMZ. I did this for hours before realizing it, like a mouse in a maze looking for new cheese.

I know I'm a creature of habit, but if I don't make specific to-do lists, I glaze over in front of the monitor and just hit every link in my bookmarks until something takes my attention elsewhere. When I sat and thought about it, I realized that I had an elaborate labyrinth of ruts threading through my daily life, from out-and-about chores (grocery store, discount store, home) to days off (lunch out, thrift shops, lottery tickets). My life lately has been wash, rinse, repeat, but I don't mind the lack of drama. Drama queens have no reign here. I just have to remember occasionally to get off the treadmill and hop out of the rut. And try to quit TMZ, that site is killing my brain cells.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Loosening my grip on reality

I attended the Ozarks Creative Writers conference this month, and while a lot of the sessions don't apply to a magazine writer, I occasionally sit in on the fiction seminars. I've attended this conference every year for at least ten years, and I've seen a LOT of speakers, some good, some bad, some informative, some not so much. So you can take it to the bank when I say that author Jodi Thomas is one of the best speakers I've seen in years. She's funny, helpful, has lots of tips for writers of all stripes, and knows how to keep an audience's attention.

She started out with a great icebreaker, telling everyone to just accept the fact that if they're a writer, they're not normal. Never will be normal. This was met with lots of laughs, and a few sighs of relief. She went on to tell the crowd that because they're writers, they have a loose grip on reality, and that's not only okay, it's essential. I won't give away the whole talk, so people can be delightfully surprised when they hear it for the first time. She's also interactive, going beyond a usual Q & A to giving little assignments and getting people involved (and keeping them awake, not always easy in a keynote).

I've never read any of her books, but I did pick one up after the conference because she intrigued me. Haven't started it yet, but it's near the top of my swaying stack of next reads.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Nano cometh

Only a week until NaNoWriMo starts! Eeek! I've sorta plotted out my novel about young zombies in love, but it could use some more outlining. The novel is called 'Working Stiffs,' and it's a tale of twentysomethings working, unliving, and loving in a mixed-life world. Imagine 'Shaun of the Dead' meets 'Friends,' with a dash of Kevin Smith films thrown in for good measure. In addition to that, I've got a kick-off party to plan, plus write-ins, so, no, I'm not stressed at all.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The end of the all-nighter

Your deadline looms, yet you are still playing phone tag with an interviewee, and the fact-checking is going painfully slow. Sometimes, you're just exhausted, and forcing together coherent sentences. Either way, to make your deadline, you rely on the time-tested method of caffeine and late night work. It's hard, but you feel a twisted sense of accomplishment at 5 a.m. as you run the spellchecker and get the file ready to go.


Years ago, I could pull an all-nighter with nothing more than an upbeat CD and some green tea. Not any more. After suffering enough misunderstandings and coincidences with sources, information, and the general universe to satisfy both Shakespeare and Three's Company, I found myself trying to just get the work done, push it through, and discover that little 5 a.m. rush.

Didn't happen.

At 2 a.m., I gave up, tired, crabby, and unable to communicate even with the cat. I must face the fact that, at 39, I'm getting too old to pull an all-nighter to finish an article. Years ago, no problem, and after a few hours sleep, I could bounce up bright-eyed. Those days are long gone. The only bouncing that happens is if I doze off in my chair, then fall out of it. I must accept the fact that my eyelids start to fall during the Daily Show, and the work has to wait. Oh, the humanity.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Dis (and dat) organized

Yesterday I was looking at one of those car organizers conveniently shaped like the cupholder; it had little spaces for a cellphone, a few pens, and a notepad, if one was so inclined. It was irresistible, and my hand stretched out for it, paying no attention to my brain. Like a crow and a shiny object, we were drawn together, until my husband came past.

"You want to turn the car into an office, don't you?" he asked. "I swear, your DNA string has paper clips in it."

It's true. I get the same look on my face walking into an office supply store that my cat has when presented with a fresh catnip toy: incredibly pleased, and perhaps a little rabid. Notebooks and pens of all sizes, shapes and colors beckon, designer file folders and leopard-patterned computer mice do a little come-hither dance in their sealed plastic slips. I love it all, and I'm not the only one: an addict can always recognize another addict in Staples or Office Depot. We shuffle along with an armload of stuff, putting something down when we find a new gadget, doing that cash register math in our heads. Now, the stores take unfair advantage of us, coming out with accessories in bright, toddler-friendly colors. Binders have MP3 player plugs now, and backpacks have enough pockets to store a squirrel's stash of highlighters, USB drives, and other must-have trinkets of the trade. The best thing? It's all deductible, bwa-ha-ha-ha.

Yes, I have file folders, binders, hanging folders, Trapper Keepers (for those retro moods) ledger books, plastic see-through document keepers, index cards and boxes, plus two kinds of software that records every contact, query, date of submission, when I received the rejection or assignment, how much time I spent on the project, and what the weather was doing that day.

And the most updated piece of record-keeping in my home office is a small, battered, teal notebook with Scooby-Doo stickers on it.

It's a little hardcover, spiral notebook with 100 pages at best, and I spent a whole dollar on it the year I began freelancing. The notebook is filled with lots of essential stuff, like passwords for websites that no longer exist, the start of a family tree, Christmas gift lists, and detailed pages showing my queries and submissions. Each query page is headed by the year, and every publication or website that I hoped to sell to has notes written across it. There were a lot of 'no responses' and 'rejected' notes that first year, as well as a few mournful 'let go' scribbles for publications that I really wanted to land, but never heard from again. There are a couple of 'Accepted!' notes listed, hard to miss with the party balloons and confetti drawn in the margin. And as the pages go past, there are more assignments than rejections. I still keep recording my submissions in it today, because that silly little notebook feels like an old friend who stuck by me during the lessons learned: the editors who ordered rewrites, didn't pay me, or didn't publish the piece (sometimes all three).

Someday I'll have to replace that notebook, but I've never found another one just like it. With every organizational tool, tip and system at my disposal, it's that dollar investment keeping me on track, and reminding me of how far I've come.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Coming back into the light

For more than a year, I lived in some dark times creatively. The fire that fueled my writing had petered out to little more than a weak ember, something that wouldn't even burn your foot if you accidentally stepped on it. I kept writing, I had regular gigs, but the fun was gone. Getting up and heading to the computer in the morning had that same, dungeon-y feel as waking up for my old day job, trudging into the office. After a lifetime of writing for business and pleasure, I started to seriously worry that all my ideas were used up, the words fading away, and it was time to fill out an application at Wal-Mart.

I tried to rally, I really did. 'C'mon,' I'd say to myself (and drawing oh-so-strange-looks from passerby) 'You can beat this, and then you can write an article about it.' But my muse wasn't tempted; she had dried up, resembling those pitiful sea monkeys kids used to order from comic books. I isolated myself this summer, reading tons of books, and taking walks. It resulted in a few book ideas, but nothing spurred me to get up and actually start writing.

Then, a few weeks ago, the universe tilted. My neighbor's son, who is 13, started writing stories. They weren't too bad, and I wanted to encourage him to keep going, keep striving for success. I told him that if he wanted to keep writing, I would help him find markets. Problem was, what he really loved to write was scary stuff, horror for the YA set. I took my quest to the folks at Absolute Write horror board, and they were so kind in their responses, ideas, and suggestions. Basically, there wasn't much between writing kid stuff, and writing for regular horror publications. It got me thinking.

I am working on creating a new horror writing contest for kids, with the help and guidance of other writers. I plan to have it all worked out by early next year, so winners can be announced on Halloween 2008. It's been a blast, I'm putting up the prize money myself, and it has inspired me to do more for young writers, like contact area schools and get them interested in the Young Writers Program at NaNoWriMo (I'm an ML for my region) and also sponsor a local youth writing contest in conjunction with a local festival for next year. I want every young writer to have the opportunity to see their work in print, or win a contest, or be critiqued, or just be recognized. I want them to hear, 'that's great, keep going!' because those opportunities just weren't around when I was their age.

After I started working on the horror contest, I felt something. At first I thought it was heartburn, or acid reflux, or just the previous night's pizza catching up to me.

Then it dawned on me.

The muse was back.

I was back.

Ideas were bouncing around in my head like mutant jumping beans, demanding to be written down. (Write catchy slogans! Write about thrifty gift-giving! Start a blog!) Every time I look at a market newsletter, I'm filled with query ideas. Every end of the spectrum interests me (but can I really write quizzes for kids' magazines and light erotica for lingerie websites?). It's like having no appetite, then suddenly, you're hungry again, and there's yummy food all around you.

I had tried all the advice in the magazines to get my mojo back: write somewhere different, don't write at all, make deals with yourself, set a timer, just do it, etc., etc., etc. Now I realize that all those bits were about me; once I focused on someone else, helping others, the writer's depression lifted. It wasn't about me, it was about everyone else.

Helping others ended up helping me the most, a very happy byproduct of the process. I recommend it to anyone who's in the dark, struggling. Get out of your own head, and make a difference in another's life.

BTW, watch for the 2008 FangMuse Horror Contest for Young Writers next spring.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Obsessions: now? How about now? and now?

Before computers, I wrote in longhand, then typed it up, cursing whenever the small god of typos popped in. Back then, the biggest tech innovation was the electric typewriter that had auto correction. Writing was a sllllloooooooooow job, and my only obsession was the driving speed of the mailman. And pens and notebooks.

Ah, how quaint.

Today, the writing world has speeded up considerably. I rarely use paper envelopes or postage now; I get my assignments through e-mail, I turn them in through e-mail, I download photos from CVB websites, I upload them to the magazine's server, I even conduct some interviews through e-mail. I also check my email constantly as I work. That 'no new mail' icon is the bane of my existence as I juggle correspondence with editors, sources, my Nanowrimo group, and occasionally, friends. Do I have mail now? How about now? Now? And now? Is it there now? The internet has made it possible for me to turn around a 3,000-word article in a week, complete with five interviews and a folder full of research. It's also made it possible for me to get crazy quicker, so it's efficient all the way around.

The mailman's not off the hook just yet, though. Those checks still come the sloooooooow way.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Pining for the Insta-Brain

If I could create any technology in the world, it would be a device to record my thoughts when my hands are busy, like when I'm driving or jogging. One of the ironies of writing is that everything sounds great when its in your head; another is that cool ideas will always pop into your head when you can't stop to write them down. If I'm driving along, the perfect opening line for my article will zip past the inside of my eyeballs, and unless I repeat it over and over like some pleading mantra until I can get to a stoplight and pull out a pen and the back of the phone bill. When I do this, the pen will, by order of Murphy's Law, refuse to work, and I end up chiseling the faint outline in the paper, hoping it will be enough to remind me later.

But if I could invent the Insta-Brain 2000, I could just push the tiny 'record' button hidden behind my ear, catch all those thoughts, and transcribe them later, or even better, hook it up to a USB cable and let the computer transcribe it (a feature for the Insta-Brain 3000, perhaps). There could be drawbacks, of course, like forgetting to turn it off and it records the inner dialog while watching George Clooney, but any great invention will have a few bugs to work through. Just have to encrypt the transcript file, that's all.